Art is not just the creative manifestation of the human spirit but can also be a powerful force for social change and cultural preservation. Blending art with business and a social cause can be quite a challenge for sustainability and scale, but a number of social entrepreneurs are showing that this can be done successfully.
Meet Ankit Jha of eMithilaHaat.com , Deepa Subramaniam of Galerie de Arts, and Srijata Bhatnagar of EthnicShack -- social entrepreneurs in the world of art, or 'artrepreneurs,' who joined YourStory at a recent meetup on social entrepreneurship.
In exclusive interviews, they shared their inspiring stories on how to blend art with business, connect with larger social causes and make the world a better place for us all.
The ‘Aha’ Moment
Ankit Jha hails from Darbhanga, an important district in the famed Mithilanchal of the ‘Ramayana’. The Madhubani paintings of the region have been in the spotlight with artistes receiving the highest accolades from the Indian government such as the Padmashree – but not much else has been done to recognise and preserve the art. That was the motivation for Ankit to start the online marketplace for Mithila art, eMithilaHaat.
The company sells Mithila paintings on handmade paper as well as on ‘tasar’ silk, which can be used as wall hangings. eMithilaHaat buys the artwork at mutually agreed upon prices and shares profits from online sales with the artists. “Though we are a for-profit organisation, we have a clear mission to help the artisans in preserving and promoting these endangered art forms,” says Ankit.
Deepa Subramaniam is a first generation entrepreneur – and also a ‘parallel’ entrepreneur. The first company she founded is a pharmaceutical chemicals company which keeps her on the road a lot, shuttling all over China and India. Her second company is diametrically opposite – an art gallery on MG Road in Bangalore.
“The idea of starting the gallery was to convert a passion into a business. When I plunged into it, I didn’t have the usual concerns and anxieties of starting a commercial enterprise. The only pain point perhaps was to explore if there was a convergence of my passion and business which was the biggest challenge,” says Deepa.
Srijata Bhatnagar, Co-founder of EthnicShack, earlier had a plush job in an online product management at ESPN Cricinfo, and was previously at Sulekha, ClickJobs, BharatMatrimony, IndiaProperty and other startups. “After a couple of unsatisfactory job changes and two years of soul searching, I decided to pursue my dream to become an entrepreneur,” says Srijata, who describes herself as a a rebel at heart, refusing to get tied up by the mediocrity of life.
“I was always thrilled about handmade, handwoven, handpainted and handcrafted products, and wanted to do something measurable and unique for the artisans. I wanted to give back to the community we live in and make it a little better place for all of us. And EthnicShack seemed to be the answer to combine both,” recalls Srijata.
Launch and funding
Ankit Jha’s inspiration and energy was so compelling that it even led his former boss to invest in the eMithilaHaat venture and mentor him. His father was initially furious that Ankit resigned from his fulltime job to launch a startup – but after a long discussion he too joined in and helped with investment and artist connections. Ankit’s sisters Ankita (who works at Amazon India) and Anku (a CMRIT student) were also supportive.
Deepa of Galerie de Arts, says, “The gallery is self funded and as I also run a commercial enterprise in chemicals, the task is relatively easier. At the same time, I have to say that I worked hard to break even from day one.”
The gallery identified the growing need of self promotion of the artists due to the high cost of exposure of art by most commercial galleries, and aimed to mitigate it. “This strategy set the vision and mission of the gallery as an artist-centric gallery which caters to the sensitivities of the artists,” explains Deepa, adding how the gallery works as a collaborative initiative with committed artists.
EthnicShack did a pilot offline exhibition of cottage handicrafts on 15th August 2013 and the response was overwhelming. “This gave us confidence and we went ahead and launched our e-commerce portal EthnicShack.com in September 2013,” explains Co-founder Srijata Bhatnagar.
“We chose Bangalore as our base mainly because of its friendly ecosystem. Being first time entrepreneurs we wanted to be as close as possible to the ecosystem and learn from fellow entrepreneurs quickly. Plus as our main business model is e-commerce so Bangalore happened to be the right choice,” says Srijata.
“As they say charity begins at home. Therefore, instead of searching for a co-founder outside, I went ahead and shared my idea with my real life partner Aneesh, and he was simply kicked about it and very excited,” explains Srijata.
There are a lot of imitators in the space of Madhubani paintings. “Our artists do not use any kinds of scale or compass to make straight lines and circles. This is one of the most important features of this art which differentiates it from others. Colours used are natural colours which are extracted from plant leaves, roots, and fruits. We literally bring the paintings from the roots of the culture,” explains Ankit of eMithilaHaat.
There are also many big galleries who have well established themselves in the art business. “What differentiates us from the others is our strategy to put the interest of the artist first before anything else. My gallery is only five years old and tries to keep up with the bigger players,” says Deepa of Galerie de Arts.
“Another advantage we have is the location of the gallery in the heart of Bangalore overlooking MG Road! The open balcony of the 11th floor of the gallery has a spectacular view of Bangalore,” says Deepa.
EthnicShack only works with handicrafts artisans and craftsmen directly and avoids working with middlemen. “We believe in fair trade and give them their due. We partner with them and work in complete collaboration with them. This way we are always rooted to their problems, but not lose the customer focus. We find this model is beneficial to the artisans/craftsmen at large,” explains Srijata of EthnicShack.
“We have made a lot of impact in the lives of the artisans. They are now more confident and feel proud to paint once again. We have plans of scaling by adding other arts too which are facing a similar issue,” says Ankit of eMithilaHaat.
Galerie de Arts is effectively selling works of art to art collectors which includes individuals, corporates and institutions. It is creating popular and informative forums on art, involving a wide range of audiences: art patrons, students, artists, art historians, art critics, art curators and others. “The impact so far has been overwhelming and we are able to reach across to the people personally and through digital, mobile and internet both in India and overseas,” says Deepa.
EthicShack is currently helping the small scale and grassroots level artisans in rural areas of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal. “We provide them with design inputs, global and Indian market trends and needs, and co-create the products that are saleable in today's market,” explains Srijata of EthnicShack.
“We are not yet profitable. But we are here to do business, so we have a projection of at least three years,” predicts Ankit Jha of eMithiliHaat. Galerie de Arts plans to participate in international art fairs and is also considering collaborations which may add value to the gallery to be able to reach out to a larger audience.
EthnicShack is fully bootstrapped and funding this initiative mainly with personal savings. “However, in the long run we would need to look for funds outside to boost up the operations and grow faster. We are not profitable yet, but optimistic to become profitable soon,” says Srijata Bhatnagar.
Its products are targeted towards urban women living in Tier 1 or Tie 2 cities in India; kids’s wear and men’s clothing is next. “Though we don’t yet actively promote to the international audience, we have had many shipments to USA, Qatar and the UAE,” says Srijata. The company wants to increase the number of artisans we work with and also wants to bring artisans sitting in remote villages of the Northeast, Rajasthan, Kerala and so on under the EthnicShack umbrella.
Looking back at their journeys, the entrepreneurs also shared their views on what they might have done differently if they could start over again. “As far as the gallery is concerned -- nothing! As far as the other things in my life go, I wouldn’t be here if I had got everything right the first time! I guess success is all about not getting things right the first time,” quips Deepa of Galerie de Arts.
“Everything happens for good and there is a purpose for everything. But yes, if we could have started with a bigger investment and a solid team of doers, it would have been great,” says Srijata of EthnicShack.
“If I could go back in time, I would have first found an equally crazy guy like me to work with me and multiply my efforts! I am still looking for someone who can work with me selflessly,” jokes Ankit of eMithilaHaat.
Advice to startups: Just do it!
The three founders also shared some valuable tips and advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs and startup leaders. “With all humility, my inputs to people who want to pursue their passion as a career are the following: firstly, failure is a good recipe to future success. If you want to pursue your passion, first make sure that you are comfortable to pursue it because just passion is not going to pay your bills,” advises Deepa of Galerie de Arts. If you are confident that you are good at what you are doing, don’t be afraid to charge for it -- this is no free lunch,” she adds.
“Entrepreneurship can be very, very demanding and challenging. Unless you are totally, madly and completely in love with challenges please don't get into it,” advises Srijata of EthnicShack. In the 21st century, society is ignoring the goodness of nature and traditional ways of our culture. “It's high time we wake up, preserve and nurture what has been our strength. It’s high time we start living harmoniously, else there will be a time when our children will not have a social cover when they need one,” adds Srijata.
“Life is too short. Don’t waste it living someone else’s dream. Find your love, the purpose of your life. And then go for it. Don’t wait for a favourable time. Time is never favourable,” says Ankit of eMithilaHaat, who cites Steve Jobs as one of his sources of inspirations. “Last but not the least, love and respect your parents. They are the real gods and divine figures – Rama, Jesus, Allah, and the Sikh Gurus. ” says Ankit.
“Love each other and break the barriers of the caste system. We youngsters are great at breaking rules. I am sure all of us have bunked a lot of lectures. So let’s bunk all these crappy rules of society. Let’s make our world filled with love and harmony and a better place to live,” ends Ankit on an inspiring note.